As a parent, we are challenged with decisions we make every day for our children. We all look out for their best interest, yet one view that deeply troubles me is the apt way many Christians discipline their children — spanking. I tend to sit back and not say much of anything, although those closest to me know and understand how I feel. I don’t know if some do it because they were brought up that way, have truly researched it, or believe they are following the Bible by doing so. Here’s some food for thought…
Christians, of course, are probably the strongest proponents of spanking in the US . It is, so they say, their God given right—it’s what the Bible teaches. That is exactly the point of contention and what I hope is humbly disproved.
Let’s take the Old Testament. Some (our more literal-interpreting brothers) would say that it covers a period of about 4000-6000 years; others (our more moderate and liberal brothers), anywhere between 10,000 to over a million years. Irrespective of which view you hold, it has to be astounding that there is not one example of spanking in the whole Old Testament. This is especially impressive when you consider the large percentage of OT books which are more narrative than didactic. I might also add that there is no example of spanking in the New Testament, even though the time period is significantly shorter (around 100 years) and the majority of the books are didactic and not narrative.
Now certainly there are some didactic passages in both Testaments that can be construed as being pro-spanking, however, they can be interpreted in a different light with, yes, sound exegesis.
Strange, isn’t it, for a teaching that is so adamantly held by so many believers that it is not illustrated once in either Testament. But, even if no narrative biblical passage illustrates spanking, if it is plainly taught in a didactic passage then we must accept it as God ordained. In the Old Testament the only passages that can be construed as being pro-spanking are found in only one book: Proverbs. A good hermeneutical principal is to not build doctrine on poetic passages. The wisdom books are full of symbolism and hyperbole and are often a stumbling block to the more literal interpreting readers. The “rod” in these Proverbs passages that so many see as a license to spank is symbolic. This Hebrew word is normally translated as shepherd’s “staff” or king’s “scepter”. So, if we were to be more literal, a closer translation would be bat and not twig! But that is not the author’s intent. This “rod” is a symbol of authority and guidance, like a shepherd guiding his sheep or a king governing his people (see link provided below for further details).
While the Old Testament is of great value, we recognize that no longer being under the Law changes how we apply some of the OT Scriptures to our daily lives. So even if spanking is Old Testament taught that doesn’t mean it is New Testament endorsed. Throughout the New Testament the one passage used to support spanking is Hebrews 12:4-6. Going back to the original language there, however, also changes the meaning to the importance of discipline and authority in shaping a child, not physical punishment. God certainly disciplines us but He doesn’t physically hit us when he does. Proper exegesis shows that pro-spanking people simply choose to read into this passage the very point they need to prove.
So, if there are no passages in either Testament that truly encourage spanking, then we must evaluate discipline according to other principles that the Bible teaches clearly. Jesus teaches us that we have two goals: to love God with all that we are, and to treat others the way we would like to be treated. Nowhere does He imply that His words do not apply to how we treat children. In fact, His interactions with children showed a special effort to value them and their feelings. He also tells us that whatever we do to the least of these we are doing to Him. Can you honestly say that you would want someone to hit you? I can’t. I can say truthfully that I would want loving correction and instruction if I were doing something wrong, but being hit/spanked/popped/smacked would not be a part of it.
Jesus’ example was that the one in authority had an even greater responsibility to act in love than the one under authority. We are to demonstrate the Fruit of the Spirit. Yet how is hitting a child compatible with the peace, patience, kindness and gentleness in which we are called to walk? The Bible is very specific about how we should deal with sin in others: We are taught that in correcting those who disobey to do so gently (Gal. 6:1). Parents are specifically cautioned to not cause their children to lose heart (Eph. 6:4). Having the people you love most in the world deliberately hurt you is pretty disheartening, regardless of any lofty motives they may claim.
The Bible is clear that parents have a responsibility to discipline their children. But discipline and spanking are not the same thing. Discipline is teaching. It is difficult for children to focus on a life-lesson, though, if they are distracted by the anger, hurt, fear, humiliation and resentment that result from being hit. Certainly children need correction. God corrects us and teaches us. But He doesn’t hurt us physically or emotionally, even when He allows us to experience some of the consequences of our sins.
Another important point is that most of us are able to learn best from example–that is why Paul wrote to be imitators of him as beloved children. Kids are expert mimics. Too many children in our nation are learning that the way to respond to an offense is to hurt the offender. “Turning the other cheek” is not supposed to mean baring a child’s bottom. We recognize that in other relationships of authority (employer/employee, police officer/civilian, pastor/church member, husband/wife) that physical punishment is inappropriate, even when correction is needed. Children are even more vulnerable—surely we can find better ways to correct them, as well.
Personally, I find it very interesting that when Christians teach spanking, the majority has several cute euphemisms to describe it and a list of guidelines as to how, when, and with what. There is absolutely no Biblical basis for any of them—they are essentially cultural. Whether you call it spanking, popping, smacking or hitting, they all mean to strike a child in order to produce pain and fear. Why do we feel the need to create so many guidelines: spank only on the bottom or legs, only X number of times, only with your hand/a switch/a paddle/PVC pipe (Michael and Debi Pearl, some of the most popular writers on spanking in Christian circles, advocate plastic plumbing pipe). Is spanking on the bottom any better than the Waorani practice of slapping their children in the face with stinging nettles? Why, if neither results in permanent injury? If parents are following God and God didn’t impose a limit on the number of times we strike a child, who is to say that 9 times is worse than 2? While not spanking in anger is at least more likely to avoid a total loss of control and avert serious physical injury, watching the person you love and trust more than any other calmly and deliberately choose to hurt you is a chilling experience.
I would submit that the reason behind the euphemisms and rules that Christians create is that our conscience is condemning us. We are aware on some level that hurting those who are smaller and weaker goes against the nature of Christ, and feel a need to justify and minimize what we are actually doing.
Another issue with spanking is that as the child grows, the spankings must get harder and longer in order to produce the same level of pain and fear. When do they eventually start to cross the line into abuse? Of course, most parents stop spanking once the child begins to approach them in size and maturity. We agree that then it is more appropriate to use the Biblical admonition, “Come now, let us reason together…”. If the child is old enough to reason, spanking is unnecessary. If the child is too young to reason, then the child is too young to effectively understand what the parents are trying to teach, and the spanking is both cruel and pointless.
The false dichotomy that always pops up is that if parents don’t spank, they are not disciplining their children. That suggests that parents are relying on spanking as their main or only form of discipline. Permissive, lazy parenting is neglect. The responsibility given to parents is a great, even fearsome one. However, in my experience, parents who advocate spanking are actually more likely to be guilty of lazy and haphazard discipline than those who have made a conscious choice to find alternate ways of teaching their children. Spanking becomes a reflex when the parent is frustrated, impatient, or too busy to be bothered.
There are so many alternative ways to discipline that result in harmony and renewed connection between the parent and child. Ever hear of a time-in? (It is the opposite of a time-out). When we as parents obey our directive to treat others as we want to be treated, it causes us to get behind the eyes of the child and deal with the root of the problem rather than just suppressing an outward behavior. It is amazing to see a cycle of irritability and frustration break when the parent chooses to discipline by restoring relationship. There are many great resources that give ideas of this very nature.
The plan behind redemption is clear. God wants to reconnect with us. All of the history of the Law shows that merely punishing sin doesn’t change the heart. What changes the hearts of our children is relationship. Obedience grows out of love and trust rather than a self-centered desire to avoid punishment. If children obey simply out of fear of being spanked, their motivation isn’t righteousness, but only self-centeredness.
As a child of God, my choice for obedience isn’t based on a fear of punishment. It isn’t a get-out-of-hell-free card for me. It is because I love Him and have learned to trust Him. My children are learning to obey for the same reasons. If my children do wrong and repent, for me to go ahead and hit them seems very inconsistent with the way that God has forgiven my mistakes. I want to show the same grace toward my kids that I have received. It is God’s kindness that leads us to repentance, not His wrath.
Disciplining our children is probably one of the most difficult choices we must make. We know how we want them to act, what we want them to do, and how we want them to be. My children constantly are bringing me closer to my Lord as I seek to reflect His face to them. I pray each morning that I am an expression of His grace, that I show it to my children, and leave a dose for myself.